Destruction and Opportunity: Trench Two of the Southwest Church

My trench for the 2019 Umm el-Jimal field season is a looter’s pit in the Southwest church. Only a few years ago, the church’s amazing plaster floors, complete with inscribed designs, were impressively intact. But a recent looting expedition has left the floors with several large holes, in my particular case, destroying the design which once was present in the area of the nave farthest from the apse. When the damage was discovered, the pits were filled with backfill to avoid any injury.

The looter’s trench as it was found, showing more of the inscribed design that had worn away by the time of excavation.

This season, it was decided that the pit be re-excavated, albeit far more carefully, to see what the looters had unearthed and what might be below where they had left off. Though it is tragic that the looters destroyed parts of floors which had laid undisturbed for well over a thousand years, it has given an opportunity for us to increase our knowledge of the church and the site as a whole. It is unlikely that any excavation would have been done in the church otherwise, as it would be quite unadvisable to disturb such a well-preserved floor to see what lies beneath. Additionally, it was thought important to collect as much pottery and other evidence as possible below the plaster layers to better date the structure and what other human activities may have happened before the construction of the church.

One question which was thought especially important was the relationship between the Southwest Church and the building which appears to have been present before it was constructed. About halfway into the nave, the wall on one side of the church appears to abut a separately constructed wall. Additionally, the current structure of the church is connected to several side rooms, one at least appears to be a stable for keeping various animals, and others may have been homes. This all suggests that there was a different structure present which was later partially built over by the church, though this previous purpose cannot be definitively identified. Nonetheless, it would appear by the types of buildings and the current dating of the buildings that the church was built possibly over a previous courtyard which once joined one or multiple homes.

A final reason for excavating here is the relation to the wider project at Umm el-Jimal. This season’s excavations sought to investigate some of the churches of the site to make more clear the relationship religion had to the people who once lived in what are now ruins, even as it continues to interact with the lives of those still living here. The site famously has perhaps the greatest concentration of churches in all of Jordan, and many are built in surprising ways. Why did the inhabitants decide to build yet another church, and why over half the remains of what may have been a courtyard? What relationship did the people have with their religion that they deemed it necessary to have a church constructed which connected to an earlier house? These are questions it was thought the excavation of the looter’s pit might be able to answer.

Keeping in mind the opportunity which presented itself, questions about the relationship with the previous structure, as well as the wider project, excavation began. It was determined that, though it would be necessary to eventually excavate some of the surrounding plaster floor, it should be preserved as much as possible. The first order of business was to remove the backfill which had been brought in to fill the pit. This was done relatively quickly, as it was put there only years ago and any evidence which was within the dirt was useless to dating, and so it was not collected. As pictures of the looter’s pit when it was first found showed, below the first plaster floor were large boulders followed by a second, earlier, plaster floor. All was found generally as the pictures suggested, though it appeared that some of the first plaster floor directly surrounding the pit had unfortunately worn away, and more of the design which had been dug through was forever lost.

A small probe area was then chosen to excavate some of the remaining plaster. It was important, now that the plaster was already broken into, to take samples and more definitely determine the date of the current plaster floors and discover if there were any previous surfaces directly below the plaster which might have been previous floors of the church. Thus, the plaster was excavated and samples taken, and it was discovered that, contrary to initial thoughts, there were three layers to the plaster; a smooth, top layer, a thicker and rougher foundation layer, and a thin, white layer whose purpose is uncertain. Prior to the excavation of the probe, it was thought that there were in fact four separate layers, meaning perhaps two separate floors, as the second layer had split and appeared as two. Though further damage to the plaster floor was not ideal, this discovery showed that such a step was necessary to achieve an accurate picture of the church floor.

As excavation progressed, the second plaster floor was reached and it was hoped that some questions could be answered. Because the height difference between the floors was so severe, it seemed unlikely that this floor was a previous church flooring, as they would have had to raise the entire structure up. Adding to this, the floor was not like the first plaster in that it was a single, rough layer, fairly similar to the second layer in the first floor, though thicker. Given the smoothness and designs present on the first layer, it seems even more unlikely that such a rough floor would be used for a church. A more utilitarian purpose would seem far more probable, lending some credence to the idea that the church was built partially on top of an old courtyard. It is hoped that results from plaster samples and pottery evidence will help in more accurately dating both the church and the second plaster floor to assist in determining what purpose the latter served.

The completed trench, showing the first and second plaster floors and down to bedrock.

Umm el-Jimal is a town of amazingly preserved ruins, unique in many respects. Yet, even with all that has stood the test of time to impress us with the power and care of ordinary people, we are left with many questions. It can only be hoped that through careful archaeological work, cooperation and inclusion of the current community – who know the site best – and respect for the people for whom and by whom these humble and astounding structures were constructed, we shall come to learn more. I pray we shall use this knowledge to enlighten the living, give hope to the future, and love the dead.

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